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Christmas Day Bomber Sentenced To Life In Prison

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty in October to a plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009.
U.S. Marshals Service, File
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty in October to a plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009.

The man who tried to blow up a U.S. passenger plane three Christmases ago was sentenced to life in prison in a Detroit courtroom today. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 25, boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam on Dec. 25, 2009, with a massive bomb hidden in his underwear. As the plane approached Detroit, he tried to detonate the explosives. They failed to go off.

Four months ago, on the second day of his criminal trial, Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty.

Judge Nancy Edmunds' decision to put Abdulmutallab away for life without possibility of parole was not a surprise: two of the eight terrorism and conspiracy charges to which he pleaded guilty carried mandatory life sentences.

"This was an act of terrorism that cannot be quibbled with," Edmunds said.

Several people who were on the flight that day spoke in court ahead of the sentencing. They talked about what the attempted attack had wrought and how, even today, nearly three years later, they are still skittish about flying. Abdulmutallab, who acted as his own attorney, also provided a statement to the court. He didn't use the opportunity to express remorse, but instead sought to explain why his attack on Flight 253 was a mission from God.

Abdulmutallab spoke briefly in court. He said his sentencing was a "day of victory," adding that the Quran instructs Muslims to kill people in God's name and Jews should be driven out of Palestine.

Edmunds listened patiently as the young Nigerian spoke and after he was done, gave her ruling.

While the life sentence was hardly a surprise — it was mandated by federal law — some of the details that came out ahead of Abdulmutallab's sentencing were new. In particular, a document prepared for Judge Edmunds that assessed the level of danger Abdulmutallab presented shed new light on the role American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki played in the most major plot on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In a 22-page report, an Israeli criminologist who specializes in interviewing suicide bombers, Simon Perry, said that Abdulmutallab had revealed that Awlaki not only inspired him, which was known, but also masterminded the attack.

According to the report, Abdulmutallab told the FBI that he went to Yemen in search of Awlaki in late 2009. Abdulmutallab had listened to Awlaki's sermons and heard in them a calling: He decided his destiny was to become a martyr for Islam. So he traveled to Yemen and went from mosque to mosque asking if someone could help him reach Awlaki.

Eventually the two traded text messages. Awlaki made Abdulmuttallab write an essay about his commitment to jihad and then, eventually, had him driven to his desert home. Awlaki discussed the plot with Abdulmutallab, introduced him to an al-Qaida explosives expert who made the underwear bomb, and then spent days helping Abdulmutallab perfect his martyrdom video.

Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Yemen last year. The Obama administration said that he was an operative for al-Qaida and therefore, even though he was an American, born in New Mexico, he was a legitimate target. Until the Abdulmutallab sentencing document, the Obama administration had not provided any proof for its allegations. Awlaki was better known as a propagandist for al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Justice Department may have decided to release those new details about his more operational role to prepare for a speech that Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to give in the coming days that outlines the legal justification the administration used to target Awlaki.

Awlaki was not the only American killed in that Yemeni drone attack. A North Carolina man named Samir Khan was also in the car when the drone struck. The sentencing document includes some details about Khan, too. It says that he also met with Abdulmutallab in Yemen and provided counseling and advice ahead of Abdulmutallab's Christmas Day mission.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dina Temple-Raston
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.